Chechnya Goes to Polls Today As Moscow Hopes for Disarray

Candidates proclaim independence from Russia, while voters hope for food

As she swept her living room floor while a sister brushed paint onto the walls of her newly built home, Yesita Dadayeva was unfazed by the prospect of receiving several hundred guests today.

"Let them come. I'm just happy," she says. "I'm doing this so that we have a president as soon as possible."

Ms. Dadayeva, the owner of the largest intact house in this half-destroyed village south of Grozny, has turned her home into a makeshift polling station for today's elections. And like Chechens throughout this war-shattered republic, she's pinning her hopes on the vote as a first step toward a normal life after two years of bloodshed and privation.

For most voters, these presidential and parliamentary elections are about elemental issues: finding a proper place to live, any kind of job, and enough food to feed the family.

"People are thinking first and foremost about food," says Zaur Najayev, the mayor of Shali, a regional capital.

The broader questions at stake, such as the unresolved status of the breakaway republic's relations with Moscow, fall by the wayside.

In any event, the Kremlin's insistence that Chechnya is still a part of Russia is irrelevant to the main presidential candidates, all of whom were leaders of the republic's battle for independence. Voters' options are limited to men who reject anything short of full sovereignty because pro-Moscow opposition leaders have chosen to stay out of the race.

"There may be some candidates for parliament who don't support independence, but they wouldn't admit it," says Alikhan Keharzayev, the president of a local electoral commission in Urus Martan, not far from here. "It wouldn't win them any votes."

The narrow choice of political positions on offer, however, does not appear to have dampened enthusiasm for the elections. Most Chechens desire a government that will start rebuilding a republic in which factories, farms, and businesses ground to a halt months or years ago.

"We need elections so that the authorities will be clearly defined, because we need a legitimate, concrete government," remarked Said Ahmed Zurayev as he stood at the edge of an election meeting in central Grozny last week. "Then they can start developing the economy."

The presidential race has narrowed to two candidates: the soft-spoken and moderate Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov, and the charismatic guerrilla hero Shamil Basayev.

"People will vote for Maskhadov for stability and so that wages will be paid again, and they will vote for Basayev for his personal qualities," says Lyuba Baskhanova, a sociologist based in Grozny, who has carried out some simple voter surveys.

Her primitive opinion polls suggest that Mr. Maskhadov is ahead, but that Mr. Basayev's dynamic campaign has closed the gap in recent days. The question now, says Ms. Baskhanova, is whether Maskhadov can win the outright majority needed for victory in the first round and avoid a runoff that would be held within a month.

Such niceties of democratic electoral law seem out of place in Grozny, a city that Russian artillery and airstrikes transformed into a setting more like Armageddon than Washington. Thousands of armed men loyal to this or that candidate roam the gutted streets, nothing works, and the Central Electoral Commission began preparing the elections only seven weeks ago.

Despite the difficulties, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is funding the elections and sending 60 poll observers, remains cautiously optimistic. "It would be totally wrong to say that the elections cannot be free and fair," says Tom Guldimann, the local OSCE representative.

Armed with ultraviolet lamps to detect the indelible ink that will mark voters' hands, and electoral lists prepared by teachers who went door to door to see who still lived in their homes, polling station officials say they are confident they will be able to prevent repeat voting.

And few Chechens expect any attempt to rig the vote count. "We have lost too much to lie to each other," says Svetlana Bajayeva, president of a polling station set up in School 46 in Grozny.

By election day, there had been no allegations of unfairness from any of the campaigns. More worrisome to the Chechen authorities is whether Russia will accept the elections as democratic.

The Central Electoral Commission, against OSCE advice, has refused to allow voting outside Chechnya, disenfranchising as many as 300,000 refugees, many of them ethnic Russians. That has prompted a number of senior Russian officials to cast doubt in advance upon the results of the election, throwing a further pall of uncertainty over the future of relations between Moscow and Grozny.

Russian hard-liners have also been predicting - almost hopefully - that losing candidates will dispute the results of today's vote and that Chechnya will slide into civil war between rival bands of guerrillas. Infighting among Chechens would render impractical any Chechen claim to independence from Russia.

Chechens, too, worry about that possibility, but point with hope to an oath all five leading presidential candidates swore earlier this month to respect the elections results and to work with the winner.

Standing in her polling station in School 46 under a poster proclaiming "May Harmony Triumph," precinct chairwoman Ms. Bajayeva pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and summed up her feelings. "We are just hoping for the best," she said.

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